Talking with a Toddler about Feelings

Having a toddler has made me realize more and more about feelings.

She has big feelings, and I have big feelings. The more real I try to be with my daughter, the more I find that we keep running into feelings…everyone’s feelings. My two-year old daughter is rather verbal and socially inclined. Sometimes she brings up her feelings or talks about the feelings other people are having; sometimes I bring up mine or talk to her about ways to handle hers.

Mind you, we talk about feelings a lot in this house. Someone gave us a set of feeling books — angry, scared, happy, lonely, kind, jealous, sad. As she got into both reading and feelings, I got them out one at a time, starting with her current favorite When I’m Feeling Angry. (After a several weeks, I still haven’t gotten them all out.) As far as feelings go, she mostly knows and talks about being angry, sad, scared, frustrated and happy. We use the ASL signs for the various feelings, and she does as well.

Here are some stories of our feelings talk in action:

One day, she wanted to use the scissors and cut paper:

We’re trying to let her find her own way of doing things, something I’ve been thinking about since reading this article “Would You Let Your Baby Do This?” This is a new skill for her, and the method she is using makes coordination more challenging.

“Daddy, I feel frustrated Daddy. Because I try to use the scissors. I tried to do it. I tried to do it like this.”

[Tried some more.]

“I’m feeling frustrated and angry. I have to be patient.”

Earlier in the day, while I was doing something, I heard her have the following conversation to herself:

“I’m frustrated! I need to breathe.” [Breathed…Tried again and was successful. Smile ensues.]

Then one night, while my daughter was in the bath…

I apologized to her for getting angry earlier in the day. On a whim, I decided to ask her how she feels when mama and daddy get angry.

When mama and daddy get angry, how do you feel?

“I feel frustrated and angry because mama and daddy loud.”

When mama and daddy get angry you feel frustrated because we are loud?


[Later, she continued from this point.]

“I wonder how mama and daddy loud.”

Why are mama and daddy loud when they get angry?


Well, when I get angry I feel “a boiling hot volcano in my tummy that is about to explode” (a line from the book she mentioned earlier in the conversation). I just feel angry and frustrated and I start getting loud. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt you.

[Her face relaxed into a smile, and she began talking about how she wants to “stand (up in the bath) but doesn’t understand how” and how we should “listen to mama’s belly — shh! be quiet!”]

One last story: She had a hard morning, and we were having a cuddly close calm moment. I thought I would see if she could tell me her side of things.

You seemed upset this morning. Can you tell me what happened?

I feel frustrated and angry (notice these go together often) because mama and daddy don’t hear me.

[Remembering that my husband and I were having a conversation, and she was yelling something at us…] You felt frustrated because mama and daddy weren’t listening?


You were trying to tell mama and daddy something, and we didn’t hear you and you felt frustrated?

Yes. I felt frustrated and angry because mama and daddy don’t hear me.

I’m sorry, Uma. I will try harder to listen to you when you have something to tell me.

These conversations both moved and struck me.

Is this evidence that children are capable of complex conversation around such abstract ideas as feelings?

Though it does feel better to be able to talk about things when they get hard, I am not sure if I am doing the “right” thing, or if she is “ready.” I do feel like I am following her lead. I try to not tell her how she is feeling. Yet, I go back and forth between thinking I should be waiting on these discussions and feeling like they are helping us.

Regardless, my daughter seems to have integrated both the language and the strategies. When either my husband or I are angry she says “You need to breathe?” and we breathe together. It truly does help, and what more powerful reminder or encouragement do we need? She can breathe herself through frustration trying new things which leads her to more success at whatever she is trying to do.

I guess only time will tell what the impact of our feelings talk will be…

10 responses to this post.

  1. “Is this evidence that children are capable of complex conversation around such abstract ideas as feelings?” YES! This is awesome….a beautiful story about wonderful, sensitive parenting.

    And thank you for the link! 🙂


  2. Absolutely our little ones are capable of talking about feelings! You’ve simply given her words for things that she is feeling anyway – it’s the same way you’ve labeled colors or objects – she learned those too, right? Keep it up, mama 🙂


  3. Oh goodness, I’m crying. It’s been some hard weeks this first month of mothering two children after the birth of my son. Feelings are running intensely high at times, and I’m glad we had this foundation to ground us. Still, it’s been a lot of doubting myself and apologizing and trying and trying again. It feels really good to hear some encouraging words from the likes of you two amazing women. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.


  4. Posted by Ciara on January 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    This is a great post….pretty incredible! It’s amazing that a 2 year old can use the breathing technique.

    All three of these stories discuss being angry & frustrated– is Uma able to talk about when she is happy/excited/proud, etc? Would it be worth balancing out discussions about anger & frustration with conversation of happy feelings?

    I bookmarked this DIY related to feelings:
    Could be a good reuse of those balloons at your house : )


  5. Posted by Elizabeth P. on January 19, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I am a big fan of that series of books. We had them in my Kindercare program years ago and they were very popular.


  6. […] wrote a post on feelings about my own experiences talking with my daughter, particularly around frustration. I believe that […]


  7. […] my daughter to process her frustration, even if she abandons a task, rather than asking if she needs help or to be […]


  8. […] wrote about talking to toddlers about feelings a little while back. For a bit there I felt like reading books about feelings (and doing the signs […]


  9. […] getting down to her level and staying with her in a calm way, I let my daughter know that her feelings are ok and we are […]


  10. […] My toddler breathes as a tool available to her when she is frustrated, angry or calling up more patience. She still needs guidance, through suggestion or modeling, and sometimes she is not wanting to breathe. (Sometimes we cling to our negativity, don’t we?) […]


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